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  • Writer's pictureOliver Drakeford, LMFT CGP

Understanding Parentification vs Adultification vs Infantilization

Updated: Jun 5

parentification vs adultification vs infantilization

Healthy Family Dynamics vs Parentification vs Adultification vs Infantilization

Before we dive into parentification vs adultification, let us understand what a healthy family dynamic is in order to be able to compare what we see. I'm a structural family therapist, and I've been working with families for nearly ten years; this is my down-and-dirty crash course in Family Systems!

healthy family in parentification and adultification

In a stereotypical two-parent household:

  • the caregivers are at the top of this Family Map.

  • There's a nice healthy boundary keeping the child in a separate subsystem.

  • The flow of care goes from the caregivers to the child.

Structural Family Systems understands that this structure, specifically with adults at the top (this works for one-parent homes, too,) is the best setup for healthy, happy children and for the family to function well.

If you are curious about your family dynamics or are thinking about Family Therapy in Los Angeles, please reach out to connect with me. I offer a free consultation call in which we can discuss your concerns, and I can answer questions.

Define Adultification

In family systems therapy, adultification is defined as a dynamic where a child is expected or pressured to assume adult-like roles and responsibilities within the family.

Define Parentification

Through the lens of family systems theory, parentification is defined as a form of role corruption in which a child is forced or required to take on the role and responsibilities of a caregiver within the family system, often characterized by the parent's enlistment of a child to fulfill their needs to be cared for.

Define Infantilization

In family systems, work, infantilization is defined by a parent's refusal to tolerate and support a child's age-appropriate move towards individuation and independence, often caused by the caregiver's need to be needed.

I'd love it if you clicked on these links to find out more about how I work with families and couples: Family Therapy Los Angeles | Couples Therapy Los Angeles |

parentification vs adultification in family systems therapy

What is Adultification?

Adultification is similar to parentification but remains distinct. In Structural Family Systems theory, adultification is a dynamic where a child is expected or pressured to assume adult-like roles and responsibilities within the family. In this situation, the adultified child becomes more of a friend, confidante, and ally rather than a caregiver. This is a family structure disturbance that will also affect its overall functioning as the equilibrium of power and responsibilities shifts.

Adultified children are often the first-born or only children; sometimes, they're 'groomed' to be precocious or outgoing, which often masks some emotional immaturity. 

Definition and Explanation of Adultification

Adultification, as understood in Structural Family Systems theory, is the process where a child is compelled to adopt adult roles and responsibilities within the family. This situation can arise when a parent is emotionally or physically absent, necessitating the child to assume roles like caretaking or decision-making, which are usually inappropriate for their age. This dynamic leads to a reversal of roles within the family unit, with the child adopting a level of authority and maturity beyond their developmental stage.

The adultified child shares some degree of practical and/or emotional responsibility with their parent in a partner-like relationship. Often the child is exposed to adult knowledge prematurely and inappropriately and assumes adult roles and responsibilities.  The adultifying parent will turn to the child for validation and practical assistance in addition, perhaps more frequently than a more appropriate support system. The adult will mistake the child's eager acceptance of the role as being helpful or insightful, overlooking the child's potential fear of rejection - in doing so, the parent will justify their rationale for enlisting an ally. 

Adultification may also appear as unrealistic expectations for children to regulate their emotions and behavior as though they were more mature or to embrace a degree of independence and self-reliance, which is premature for their age.

The healthy boundaries between parent and child sub-systems are there to protect a child from things that are too grown up. I worked with someone who was burdened as a six-year-old with worries about paying rent on time and knew how much money the family had to spare for groceries each week. Children are not equipped to handle that stress or worry, so ideally, this information is not shared with them until it's age-appropriate.

What Factors Contribute to Adultification in Children?

One of the primary factors contributing to adultification in children is the presence of high conflict or dysfunction within the family. That's represented in the zigzag lines between the two caregivers.

This often arises when parents are embroiled in disputes, either with each other or with external situations, leading to a gap in parental presence and emotional availability. In response to this vacuum, children may step in to fill roles beyond their years, either out of necessity or perceived obligation.

Another significant contributor is the emotional or physical unavailability of a parent. This unavailability could stem from a variety of reasons, including mental health issues, substance abuse, or the demands of a single-parent household. In such scenarios, children may find themselves prematurely taking on responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings, managing household tasks, or providing emotional support to the parent.

Socioeconomic factors can also play a crucial role in adultification. Families facing economic hardship may rely on older children to contribute financially or manage household responsibilities, pushing them into adult roles prematurely. This situation is often compounded in single-parent households or in families where one parent is frequently absent due to work commitments.

Lastly, cultural expectations and norms can also lead to adultification. In some cultures, it is common for older children, especially in large families, to take on significant caregiving and household responsibilities. While this can be seen as a form of familial support and bonding, it can also lead to an imbalance in the child’s development by placing adult-like burdens on them at a young age.

adultification in family systems therapy

The Family Structure of Adultified Children

The hierarchy has changed in the family map for this type of family: the adultified child ascends from the child subsystem, where they naturally belong, into the adult subsystem. This shift burdens them with too much power and influence over their parents.

This change in family hierarchy leads to an imbalance where the child, despite their age, becomes a pivotal source of emotional support and is often tasked with substantial decision-making. That is represented in the size of the square representing the child.

Their role might also encompass managing household chores and taking care of younger siblings. Such responsibilities, more fitting for an adult, contribute to the child’s premature transition into adult roles, thereby encroaching upon and often diminishing their essential childhood experiences, but it can give them an inflated sense of importance - but that's at the expense of childhood experiences, like 'play'.

This movement of the child into adult roles due to the fluidity and permeability of boundaries within the family’s hierarchy showcases a fundamental alteration in the family's dynamics, impacting the child's development and the family's overall functioning.

What Are The Symptoms of Adultification In Children 

When children undergo adultification, they often exhibit symptoms reflective of the significant impact of handling adult roles and responsibilities prematurely. According to this study, these symptoms can include:

  1. Anxiety and Stress: Children in adultified roles may display heightened levels of anxiety and stress. This is typically due to the pressure and responsibility of managing tasks and expectations usually meant for adults.

  2. Emotional/Behavioral Problems: These children might show emotional or behavioral issues such as depression, mood swings, or acting out behaviors. Such problems are often reactions to the strain and stress of their adult-like roles.

  3. Lack of Socialization: Adultified children may have fewer opportunities for typical childhood activities and interactions with peers. As a result, they often experience feelings of isolation and alienation, missing out on important social development stages.

  4. Difficulty in Trusting Others: Trust issues can arise in adultified children as they are thrust into roles that require adult-level decision-making and problem-solving without adequate support. This can lead to challenges in forming healthy, trusting relationships.

  5. Low Self-Esteem: Taking on adult responsibilities at a young age can often lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Children may feel overwhelmed and undervalued, struggling to meet the high expectations placed upon them.

What Are The Symptoms Of Adultification In Adults Who Were Adultified?

Some research has tracked the symptoms in adults,

  1. Increased Mental Health Challenges: Adults who experienced adultification as children often face heightened mental health issues, including stress, anxiety, and depression. This is due to the early and excessive responsibilities they had to shoulder, often in emotionally and financially taxing environments.

  2. Difficulty in Transitioning to Adult Roles: Those subject to adultification may struggle with the transition to traditional adult roles and responsibilities. Having taken on adult-like roles prematurely, they often find themselves unprepared for the complexities and demands of adult life, leading to potential difficulties in employment and personal relationships.

  3. Challenges in Identity Formation: Adultification can disrupt the natural process of identity formation. Adults who were adultified as children might have a skewed perception of their roles and capabilities, which can lead to confusion and conflict in their personal and professional lives.

  4. Increased Risk for Engaging in Risky Behaviors: In some cases, adultified individuals may engage in risky behaviors as a coping mechanism or due to a lack of appropriate guidance during critical developmental stages. This includes substance abuse or involvement in illegal activities.

  5. Strained Family and Social Relationships: Adultification can lead to strained relationships in adulthood. These individuals might find it challenging to establish and maintain healthy relationships, as their early life experiences could have affected their ability to trust, communicate, and relate to others effectively.

Adultification Bias towards Young People Of Color

Adultification Bias is a related term that needs to be distinguished and deserves an entire blog post from me:

The concept of Adultification Bias revolves around a pervasive stereotype rooted in the way adults perceive children and their childlike behavior. This deeply ingrained bias has its origins in anti-Black racism, tracing back to the era of chattel slavery. During those grim times, enslaved Black children were tragically exploited for their labor, often toiling away in the fields with no opportunity for recreation or access to education. This historical injustice has cast a long shadow, shaping a stereotype that unjustly robs Black children of their right to play and enjoy their childhood.

This insidious bias manifests itself in various aspects of life, including within households, educational institutions, and society as a whole. It is a harsh reality that Black children often find themselves expected to comport and behave like adults long before they reach the age of adulthood. This unfair burden is placed upon them by the very adults they interact with daily, be it their own family members, teachers, or even law enforcement officers. The consequences of this bias are far-reaching, as it deprives Black children of the nurturing, protection, support, and comfort that every child deserves as they navigate the path to adulthood.

Healing From Adultification

The healing process starts with recognizing what happened when you were a child, and ultimately needs to be worked through with a therapist who can point out things that you are not aware of. After all, we all think our homes and families are normal to some degree until we start comparing them to others. It's only when we learn that certain things that occurred in our homes were unusual do we start acknowledging the impact. 

1. Acknowledge and Understand - talking to a therapist or counselor is important because you will gain more insight into what was going on while growing up.

2. Process the feelings that come up - there will likely be many.

3. Grieve. There is usually an enormous amount of sadness that comes up when I work with adults who are adultified or parentified. 

parentification vs adultification vs infantalization

What Exactly Is Parentification?

Parentification, as viewed through the lens of Structural Family Systems theory, occurs when a child is forced to take on the role and responsibilities of a parent within the family system. It is a form of role corruption characterized by the parent's enlistment of a child to fulfill their needs to be cared for. This can be due to physical or logistical necessity such as illness or economic hardship, and also when the parent is depressed, using substances, widowed or more woryingly due to a pathological need of the caregive to be taken care of.

Salvador Minuchin's Structural Family Systems theory emphasizes the importance of healthy boundaries and roles within the family, and parentification disrupts these boundaries by placing the child in an inappropriate role. This can lead to issues such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem for the child, as well as challenges with forming healthy relationships in the future.

The child who is parentified is forced to become the caregiver, decision-maker, or emotional support for their parent or siblings, becoming "Mommy's right-hand man". This often comes at the expense of the child enjoying their own childhood and development. This dynamic can lead to a variety of negative consequences for the child, including increased stress, anxiety, and a lack of appropriate boundaries.

Types of parentification (emotional, instrumental)

Emotional parentification occurs when a child is required to provide emotional support to their parents or siblings at an age when they should be receiving emotional support themselves. They may be expected to listen to their parents' problems, provide comfort, or act as a mediator in family conflicts. This can lead to a reversal of roles, where the child takes on the emotional burden of the adults in the family, impacting their own emotional development and well-being.

On the other hand, instrumental parentification involves a child taking on practical responsibilities and tasks that are typically the responsibility of a parent or caregiver. This could include taking care of younger siblings, managing household chores, or even providing financial support for the family. While it is important for children to learn responsibilities and contribute to the household, instrumental parentification can become problematic when it is excessive or inappropriate for the child's age and developmental stage.

Both forms of parentification can have long-term effects on a child's well-being, including a disruption in their own emotional and social development, a sense of loss of childhood, and difficulties forming healthy adult relationships in the future.

parentification in family systems therapy

The Family Structure of Parentified Children

In the context of structural family systems theory, the family structure of parentified children is characterized by a disruption of typical roles and boundaries with the direction of care flowing from the child towards the parent.

Parentification occurs when a child is forced to take on a parental role, often due to the absence or incapacity of the actual parent or just the need of the parent to be taken care of. It makes sense then that in this diagram, the 'blue' parent is feeling emotionally distant from the 'orange' parent, represented by the dotted lines. There may also be conflict between the two caregivers (zigzag line) which encourages the blue parent to relly on the child for comfort. This dynamic is indicative of enmeshment between the 'blue' parent and child represented by the three blue lines.

What Are The Symptoms Of Parentification In Children

Symptoms of parentification in children can be wide-ranging and can have a significant impact on their overall well-being. Children who are parentified may exhibit symptoms such as excessive worrying, feelings of overwhelming responsibility, difficulty making decisions, and struggling with issues related to emotional regulation. They may also have difficulty forming peer relationships and engaging in age-appropriate activities, as their focus is predominantly on caregiving and meeting the needs of their parents or siblings.

  • Depression / Suicidal Ideation

  • Shame / Guilt

  • Worry

  • Social isolation

  • Psychosomatic complaints

  • Distrust of others 

  • Failure to launch

Furthermore, parentified children may experience a sense of loss of their own childhood as they are forced to take on adult roles and responsibilities at a young age. This can lead to feelings of resentment, anger, and frustration, as well as a lack of opportunity for personal growth and development. Parentified children may struggle with feelings of guilt and shame, as they may feel responsible for the well-being of their family members.

What Are The Symptoms Of Parentification In Adults Who Were Parentified?

According to this study, adults who experienced parentification during childhood show a higher likelihood of various forms of psychopathology, including mood disorders, anxiety, and personality disorders.

  • Substance Use Disorders: There is an association between childhood parentification and the development of substance use disorders in adulthood. This includes a higher propensity for alcohol and drug abuse.

  • Mental Health Issues: Parentified adults may face mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety. The study found that the burden of adult responsibilities in childhood is correlated with increased rates of these mental health issues later in life.

  • Eating Disorders: The meta-analysis suggests a link between childhood parentification and the development of eating disorders in adulthood, indicating that early caregiving responsibilities can influence long-term physical and mental health.

  • Personality and Relationship Issues: Adults who were parentified as children might struggle with personality disorders and face challenges in forming and maintaining healthy relationships, potentially due to the disruption of normal childhood development and attachment processes.

What's The Difference between Parentification vs Adultification?

The main difference between Parentification vs Adultification is the difference in the care-giver's intent -which is often unconscious: parentification involves a desire for the caregiver to be taken care of by the child as if the parent were the child, whereas adultification, is an intent for the child to become an adult-like partner to caregiver, becoming more of a partner, ally and friend rather than a care-giver.

infantilzation in family systems therapy

What Is Infantilization

Infantilization is characterized by the parent's inability to tolerate a child's age appropriate move to independence. This most likely stems from the caregiver's need to be needed and the threat of separation that individuation and growingup brings.  Usually the infantilized child has an implicit awareness that their continuing dependency fulfills the needs of a parent and out of fear or concern is complicit in the behaviors.  More subtle forms of infantilization can occur when a child is not allowed to take on age-appropriate responsibilities or is sheltered from the normal challenges of growing up.

Infantilization can have long-term implications for the individual, impacting their self-esteem, sense of agency, and ability to navigate adult responsibilities. It can also contribute to a dysfunctional family dynamic, as other members may become overly reliant on the infantilized individual, perpetuating the imbalance in the family system.

infantilization in family therapy and family systems

The Family Structure In Infantlization

Infantilization, through the lens of Structural Family Systems theory, looks like this. The 'blue' caregiver's need to be needed or need to be a parent is the dominating influence in the family dynamic. It doesn't allow for family members to be autonomous and individuated.

The three blue lines represent the enmeshment between this caregiver and the child. I chose to place the child further away from the parents to relfect the lack of power this child has, it's also show in the size of the yellow box around the child.

As with parentification and adultification, there is a lack of healthy boundaries between the parent and child subsystem. When the child is being treated as younger than their actual age, it leads to a lack of responsibility on the part of the child, they are 'kept' small, dependent and powerless.

In a family where infantilization is present, the parent may take on the role of the dominant figure, making decisions for the child and not allowing them to take on age-appropriate responsibilities.

Symptoms Of Infantilization In Children

Symptoms of infantilization in children may include a lack of independence and autonomy, as they are not given the opportunity to take on age-appropriate responsibilities. They may also exhibit a sense of helplessness and an inability to make decisions for themselves, as they have been consistently treated as younger than their actual age.

Additionally, children who are infantilized may demonstrate a lack of confidence and self-esteem, as they are constantly being coddled and not given the chance to develop their own sense of agency. This can result in difficulties in forming healthy peer relationships and an over-reliance on their caregivers for even the most basic tasks. It is important to be mindful of these symptoms and address any signs of infantilization in order to support the child in developing the necessary skills and independence for their future success.

Symptoms of Infantilization in Adult Children who were Infantilized.

The repercussions of infantilization can trickle down into generations beyond the current dynamic, according to this study.

  • Increase the risk for children's externalizing symptoms, such as aggression and defiance.

  • Greater risk for under-functioning in later life, such as failure to launch or Adult Entitled Dependence Syndrome

  • Developmental delays and disruptions in the individuation process.

  • Oversexualization: The parent can often lack the confidence to extend herself to new adult relationships, leading to inappropriate gratification of her impulses, not necessarily explicitly through contact with the child. This can result in the child becoming overstimulated or preoccupied about sex

  • Thwarting of Child's Reality-Testing: The caregiver's behavior inhibits the child's recognition of the world beyond the mother-child dyad, often failing to clearly present the existence of the father or other significant adults, leading to confusion

  • Lack of Interaction with the Father and Other Significant Adults: The child suffers due to limited interaction with the father and other adults, impacting their social and intellectual growth.

Structural Family Systems and Family Therapy

Structural Family Systems Therapy, developed by Salvador Minuchin, focuses on the patterns of interactions within a family and the structure of the family unit. When dealing with issues of adultification, parentification, and infantilization, a structural family systems therapist would seek to understand the roles and boundaries within the family system.

Therapists would work with the family to identify and restructure dysfunctional patterns of interaction and communication. They would help the family members to establish healthy boundaries and roles, addressing the unhealthy dynamics that may lead to adultification, parentification, or infantilization.

Therapists may also employ techniques to help the family members communicate effectively with one another, fostering a sense of cohesion and mutual support. By addressing the underlying structure of the family, therapists can assist in creating a more balanced and nurturing environment for all family members.

Overall, structural family systems therapy can provide a framework for understanding and addressing issues related to adultification, parentification, and infantilization, ultimately helping families to create healthier and more functional dynamics within the family unit.

Find out more about how I work using Family Systems Theory here and family therapy in Los Angeles here

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